Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Genocidally Boring

The delicate subject of the alleged genocidal massacre of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in the latter stages of World War I, and efforts to force modern Turkey to recognize that it was genocide, has once again been raised in the US Congress.

A House committee voted 23-22 in favor of a resolution declaring that it was indeed genocide. The bill would go to the House floor, but the Obama administration has opposed consideration of the measure.

Politically, declaring for genocide would be popular--particularly with the influential Armenian-American population--but it would be a disaster diplomatically. Turkey, one of our most important allies, takes great offense to any suggestion that there was a genocide on Turkish soil (they admit some atrocities, but in the context of "civil war" or other decay of authority, and insist that Armenians performed their share, as well).

What would actually make sense would be a resolution supporting the efforts by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to get Turkey and Armenia to sit down and resolve this among themselves, difficult as it might be for them to do so. There is much to be lost by America getting into the middle of this, and nothing to be gained. It should be resolved through historical research--both countries making their documentation available. Particularly relevant would be the articles of state and of the military from the old, collapsing Ottoman Empire, which should be studied to understand whether the assaults on Armenian civilian populations by the military were a matter of policy, lack of discipline, or ambiguous in their authorization. Reparations for the acts of some 95 years ago should be taken off the table from the start.

Of course there is the question: so what? It does seem to matter--excessively--to both governments, neither of which had anything to do with it. Here are some relevant facts:

o World War I was itself an atrocity, the whole thing. Every government involved ended up disgracing itself, either by the way it went to war, the way it conducted its war, or in the postwar mess.
o The Great War would appear to disinterested eyes to have been a suicidal form of genocide, a reasonably successful attempt to depopulate Europe through scorched earth and elimination of an entire generation of young men.
o The Ottoman Empire centered in Turkey was right up there among the worst in terms of having the war destroy what was left of its legitimacy to govern (along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Kaiser, and Czarist Russia). Modern Turkey has no connection with that government and should have no need to defend it (nor the "Young Turk" nationalist generals who are the ones most associated with extermination efforts against the perceived "Fifth column" traitors among the Armenians). The only problem would've been if the postwar founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk" had been implicated, but he was involved in a different front, the one in Gallipoli with the British, and he later went on record condemning the "campaign" in Armenia.
o Whatever the official policy, the Armenian population was effectively eliminated from its lands in today's northeastern Turkey. The Armenians moved to the lands on the other side of the border, and many went in a diaspora to many other countries. On the one hand, Turkey should be responsible for allowing Armenians to return; on the other, it seems unlikely they would want to do so.

I think Turkey is a wonderful nation and am very optimistic for its future, in which it can play a unique, important role in international affairs as a strategically-located, prosperous, democratic, overwhelmingly Islamic example for the world. This is only true, however, if it can put aside this ugly aspect of its past and its embarrassed refusal to look honestly at it. It makes very little sense for the Erdogan government to hold to the errors of a long-lost, discredited militaristic nationalism, unless they are afraid of the specter of another military coup.

No comments: